By all military accounts, a flying robot with a bit of a brain and an uncanny sense of direction has proved that it can protect pilots and their expensive aircraft from the most hostile defenses.
After weathering early production guidance problems, the Tomahawk cruise missile appears to have performed flawlessly in its first exposure to combat.
Although military commanders are not saying what the missiles hit in Iraq, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney said yesterday that the approximately 100 Tomahawks launched from ships in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea heavily damaged their objectives.
Experts familiar with the stubby-winged, 21-foot missile said the targets were likely those most potentially lethal to aircraft -- surface-to-air missile sites, anti-aircraft batteries and radar installations that are the enemy's eyes in the sky.
"It was designed to be used against fixed air defense targets or those that would be very dangerous for an aircraft to take out," said retired Vice Adm. Joseph Metcalf III, a combat veteran who commanded the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada. "It certainly could have been used against the chemical weapons plant, but I doubt it."
The Tomahawks were among the first weapons launched against Iraq, and Metcalf said the missile deserves much of the credit for the fact that only two Allied planes were reported shot down in the initial massive campaign that involved 1,000 air missions.
"The low attrition rate is incredible," Metcalf said.
Manufactured by McDonnell Douglas Missile Systems Co. in Titusville, Fla., and General Dynamics Corp. in San Diego, the Tomahawk is "probably the most accurate weapon in the world today," said Bob Holsapple, chief spokesman for the Navy's cruise missile project.
With a 90 percent accuracy rate, the Tomahawk could be launched in San Diego, targeted for Soldier Field in Chicago and split the football field's goal posts for good measure, said General Dynamics spokesman Jack Isabel.
The Tomahawk owes its homing pigeon accuracy to 3/8 3/8 TC sophisticated guidance system that employs radar and a television camera to scan the ground and compare the terrain and the target with maps stored in the missile's computer brain. The guidance system allows the missile to continually adjust course and hug the ground to avoid enemy radar. Even the limited contrast of the Arabian desert was not enough to confuse the Tomahawk's sensitive instruments.
Armed with a 1,000-pound, high-explosive bomb, the Tomahawk burns standard jet fuel, flies at 550 mph and can hit targets up to 700 miles away. Nuclear armed missiles can travel more than twice that distance.